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Three Good Weeks Ahead for White House on Budget

This year’s almost three-week period between tonight when President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address and Feb. 13 when the president’s fiscal 2013 budget is expected to be released will give the White House an enormous advantage in getting positive media coverage for what it proposes. It will also put Congressional Republicans on the defensive right from the start of this session of Congress.

The typical one-week interval that usually occurs between the SOTU and the release of the president’s proposal almost always provides the White House with an extraordinary opportunity to get out its budget messages and set the tone for what is ahead.

With its large national television audience and blanket coverage, the address typically dominates the news for 24 to 48 hours.

It also generally is the start of a series of formal and informal communications by the White House about what the president is going to propose that culminates in the submission of the budget the following Monday.

Depending on the day of the week when the SOTU occurs, the White House usually has five to seven days when, with a combination of carefully choreographed announcements and leaks, the positive aspects of its budget dominate the headlines.

But the Florida Republican presidential primary on Jan. 31, a week after the address is delivered and two weeks before the Obama fiscal 2013 budget is sent to Congress, may mean that this year’s three weeks between the SOTU and the submission of the budget more than triples the White House’s usual advantage.

Whatever happens in Florida definitely will pull column inches, airtime and pixels away from the administration’s announcements and leaks about what the Obama budget will include.

But it will also eliminate the ability of Congressional Republicans — the ones whose reactions to what the White House says will be most newsworthy — to get much attention.

The White House will have yet another advantage because the Florida primary will be old news by the time the talk shows air the following two Sundays.

There’s no doubt the results will still be a hot topic. But the days that elapse between the primary and the following Sundays will make it hard for these shows and the rest of the weekend coverage to focus just on that story. That will leave a big opening for the impending news of the fiscal 2013 budget that the administration will be releasing.

This especially will be the case if the White House makes senior officials available to the shows to talk about its budget. A full-court press from the administration that includes the Treasury secretary, the Office of Management and Budget director, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and perhaps even the vice president will make it much more likely that the administration’s message will get prominent attention and overwhelm any responses.

Just-named White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who as OMB director was responsible for putting the fiscal 2013 proposal together, will be especially hard for talk-show producers to ignore.

The administration already has a series of events on the schedule that indicate it’s indeed planning to take advantage of this three-week period.

Immediately following the State of the Union, the president will go on a three-day barnstorming trip to five politically important states. He and his budget are likely to dominate the news in each one as a result.

In the middle of this trip, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will be holding an event in Washington, D.C., at which the Pentagon will reveal some of the details of the overall changes in Department of Defense spending priorities that the president and he announced several weeks ago. That will be big news in national outlets.

If the typical pattern is followed, there will also be planned leaks and selective releases of the parts of the budget that the White House thinks will be received the most positively.

Congressional Republicans will be hard-pressed to compete for attention with the staged White House events and will continue to have to fight hard to score budget points during this whole period.

For example, last week’s almost-certain-to-have-no-effect House vote to disapprove the administration-requested $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt ceiling not only got little serious attention, but the coverage it did get was more derisive than positive.

The same will be true over the next three weeks. The combination of the White House’s extreme advantages, the primary pulling focus away from the Congressional GOP and the fact that at this point in the year House and Senate Republicans don’t have their own budget alternatives point to a very strong start for the administration.

Rhetorically at least, it will allow the Obama 2013 budget to be better received than most analysts so far have said is possible.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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